The little boys you see begging on streets and shaking old vegetable tins in gares routières throughout Senegal aren’t simply orphans or poverty-stricken, but rather students sent away by their families to receive a religious education. Known as Talibés, from the Arabic word for student, they study the Quran at a daara (Quranic school) under a marabout (Quranic teacher), and many, though not all, are expected to pay their way through begging. Their religious education is a long spiritual journey led by their marabout, who acts as their de facto guardian.
A stated objective of the talibés’ spiritual journey is to acquire humility; this is achieved through extensive begging. The talibé system in Senegal is deeply rooted within the religion and culture. The intensive rôle religion has within the country’s politics is a leading factor in the continuation of the current practice you see today. When discussing the talibé system, it is common for Senegalese adults to reminisce on their own talibé days with a sense of pride in the suffering they endured, believing Allah will reward them in paradise. It’s a difficult concept to grasp as an outsider and even more difficult to explain each complex facet. As one of the five pillars of Islam, the giving of alms, or zakat, is an important tradition in Senegal, often practised daily, and here many believe that giving alms early in the morning will help ensure calmness throughout their day. Thus, talibés serve as an opportunity to deliver these alms.
It is important to note that not all talibés will beg on the streets. Some children studying at a government/French-language school will study the Quran at their neighborhood daara as an after-school religious education. These talibés will return to their home after their studies and will not be forced to beg. This opportunity is largely infl uenced by the family’s income. Girls can also study the Quran and are therefore also considered talibés. It’s considered improper for a girl talibé to beg on the streets, however, acknowledging the potentially greater risk to their safety.
The talibés you will see begging on the streets are roughly five to 14 years old, and are typically sent by their families into Senegal’s urban centres from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, The Gambia, Mali or distant Senegalese regions. Once in the cities, these talibésare forced to beg on the streets for a combination of money and basic staples including sugar and rice, commonly having strictly enforced daily quotas. Human Rights Watch has condemned the practice as an example of human trafficking, and indeed the personal enrichment of marabouts on the back of forced talibé labour is widespread and acknowledged, though punishments or prosecutions are fleetingly rare. These trafficked talibés, of which there are an estimated 50,000 in Senegal, will also sleep at the daara in a small room normally severely overcrowded with talibés. These sleeping arrangements lead to the spread of contagious diseases, ringworm, malaria, common colds, staph infections and other preventable ailments.
The talibé situation is undoubtedly heartbreaking; it is difficult to know our place as outsiders. During your time in Senegal, don’t forget that these ragged talibés persistently asking you for money are children. They are young children who, through no choice of their own, have been sent away and entrusted to the religious leader to receive a prideful religious education. When encountering talibés, follow the respectful Senegalese tradition of shaking one’s hand, and engage in a conversation with them (you don’t have to speak the same language to make a child laugh). When buying fruit or shopping at a boutique, give the vendor an extra 500F and ask him to give talibés fruit or a treat; the distribution will be less chaotic if the Senegalese is delivering the items. Be mindful that giving the talibés money doesn’t address the problem, but you can
still have a positive impact on these children’s lives by respecting them.
If you’d like to have a more hands-on experience with the children, get involved with local NGOs. There are organisations in Dakar, Saint-Louis and most other major cities that provide assistance to talibés. The Empire des Enfants in Dakar provides talibés with a diverse range of services including psychological and medical care, technical skills classes and a safe environment for the children to play. Maison de la Gare in Saint-Louis has been assisting talibés since 2007 and offers the children medical care and French classes, and has a dormitory to house runaway children discovered during their frequent night rounds.
As mentioned previously, the talibé system is multifaceted and problematic, but remains a deeply significant institution in Senegalese society; if you’d like to learn more, please visit www.talibes.org.